BELFAST — Councilors voted Jan. 4 to allow the city manager and city attorney to work with the Attorney General’s Office to create a conservation easement on land the city acquired from Nordic Aquafarms that was previously owned by Janet and Richard Eckrote.

The easement would include intertidal land in front of that property where Nordic wants to lay its intake and outflow pipes for its land-based fish farm. That intertidal parcel is also the subject of a quiet title claim in Waldo Superior Court where neighboring property owners Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace claimed historic deeds proved they owned the land.

Justice Robert Murray issued a ruling in October 2021 that Mabee and Grace do not own the land, which he said was conveyed with the upland property formerly owned by the Eckrotes through historic deed. But that civil case is still ongoing.

The disputed intertidal land is also included in a conservation easement held by the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area granted by Mabee and Grace a couple of years ago. That conservation easement was held by environmental nonprofit Upstream Watch first, then transferred to the Friends.

The city acquired the upland property from the Eckrotes in July 2021 and condemned property rights anyone might hold to the intertidal land through eminent domain the following month. Mabee and Grace and other parties of interest filed a lawsuit against the city regarding the action.

The Attorney General’s Office filed papers with the court to intervene in that case on behalf of the conservation easement on the intertidal parcel. The city must first get a court order to change the terms of or terminate the conservation easement before Nordic can conduct activities on that land not allowed by the conservation easement, the AG’s Office argues. The city cannot change the terms of or terminate the conservation easement simply through eminent domain.

Plaintiffs claim the action was to give access to a for-profit company rather than to create a public park that would connect the Little River Walking Trail to the ocean. Nordic gifted the property to the city with the stipulation that the city issue the company an easement across the land to bury its pipes along with other privileges, such as the possibility of constructing a pump house on the upland property.

The city maintains the eminent domain action was necessary to close a purchase-and-sale agreement between Nordic, the Belfast Water District and the city. Under that agreement, the city would acquire the land that encompasses the Little River Walking Trail, and the former Eckrote property, along with the adjacent intertidal land, would bring the trail all the way down to the ocean. The former Eckrote property would become a public park.

Councilors all seemed in favor of preserving the former Eckrote property with a conservation easement issued by the city and turning the land into a public park. Councilor Mary Mortier said the land would be a great addition to the Little River Walking Trail.
“This was a gift, this piece of land, that could now become the jewel of the necklace that is the Little River Trail,” she said. “And the fact that it has access to the ocean and five acres of intertidal land, that is nature itself.”

Councilor Mike Hurley said council members are all “tree-huggers and conservationists,” and take those matters seriously. He told people that the process has been slow but to “keep your eye on the ball.”

Councilor Neal Harkness said private people who hold conservation easements are not held directly accountable by the public, whereas the council is. “Short of making it a national park, I don’t know how much more strongly we could place it in protection,” he said.

City attorney Kristin Collins said in an email after the council discussion that she and the city manager will work with the AG’s Office to establish suitable terms for the conservation easement. She said the AG’s intervention in the eminent domain lawsuit is unnecessary because of Murray’s decision, mentioned above, that Mabee and Grace do not own the intertidal land. She hopes the new easement will satisfy the statutes the AG oversees even if a conservation easement did exist on the property when the city acquired it, she said.

The easement will be written to allow protection over the intertidal area while permitting Nordic’s right, established by its easement from the city, to place its pipes across the property and any other privileges the easement allows. It will also not affect the city’s right to make improvements to the upland lot to make it more like a city park.

Collins said municipalities will place conservation protections on land they own so they are protected from the whims of future governments. It might not be necessary, but it is good practice.

The Friends issued a press release questioning how well the city’s proposed conservation easement would protect the area when Nordic is going to lay pipes across the property. It also claims that its conservation easement is still in place there.

“What kind of ‘conservation easement’ would permit destruction of the land it covers by a foreign corporation?” the press release asks. “Is it ‘conservation’ to permit a for-profit business to bury industrial pipes in a fragile estuary adjacent to a residentially zoned upland property?”

The Friends’ release further argues that the city does not own the property because it gave a signed deed for the land to Nordic last July, and despite its not being recorded it is still a valid deed.

Collins said the deed is being held in escrow by Nordic as part of the purchase-and-sale agreement drafted when the company gave the property to Belfast. The property will only be transferred to Nordic and the deed recorded if the agreement conditions are not met. She asserts that the city is the lawful owner of the property.

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